Setting as an extension of your main character’s mind.

“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”  – Eudora Welty


Her’s Theodore Twombley, feeling cold and lonely when his relationship with Samantha, the operating system he’s fallen in love with, takes an unexpected turn.

We as writers all know that setting is one of the main literary components to storytelling, providing a specific time and place to give the story itself some form of context.  It’s also well known that, in certain circumstances, the setting can become a character in and of itself – 12 rooms, 12 vacancies anybody?  In other cases, a story’s setting can provide a dichotomy of contrasts for rich exploration such as a troubled, but poor genius working as a janitor at one of the most prestigious technical institutes in the world who’s smarter than the professors teaching there (Good Will Hunting.)  But there’s another element to setting that often goes unnoticed – and subsequently unused – by many writers: setting as an extension of the main character’s mind, or more specifically, as a representation of their inner conflicts and struggles.

In a previous discussion regarding The Shawshank Redemption, it was discussed how the world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of Red’s worldview with regard to the theme, but also a mirror to his personal problem of conformity.  By conforming to the system in an attempt at some form of self-preservation, Red has given up any semblance of his authentic-self.  He, in essence, has become a prisoner in both mind, body and spirit – problems that continue to not only exist, but magnify, once he’s plopped down into a different setting altogether: the free world.  As a result, the prison – albeit a very real setting – acts as a metaphor for something larger than just physical imprisonment that Red must overcome.

In every scene that there is a ray of light, of hope, metaphorically or otherwise, it’s due to Andy’s presence.  It’s these sepia-toned moments – and their settings, drinking suds on the rooftop or “missing one’s friend” that clash and contrast with the bleakness of the daily prison existence, heightening Red’s inner conflict between the safety of institutionalism he’s come to know vs. the uncertainty of freedom he’s come to admire through Andy:


Christopher Nolan took the notion of imprisonment and made it both figurative and literal in his mind-bending film Inception, trapping his main character Dom Cobb inside his own dreams.  Physically, Cobb is a prisoner in the sense that he’s barred from seeing his children in the United States because of a murder charge – but it’s much more complicated in that he’s also prisoner to his feelings of guilt and the role he played in his wife’s death which results in his subconscious having a big impact on the story’s numerous settings.  The clip where Cobb explains the machinations of the setting to Ariadne below  exemplifies the very nature of the setting as an extension of one’s mind:


The world Cobb and Mal created together in the past from shared memories has turned into a crumbling sea-side paradise in the present representing their state of decay in his mind as he’s built a prison of memories to keep her locked away in.  Ariadne questions this, asking Cobb if he truly believes it will contain her – the runaway train Mal and Cobb discussed in their dreams from their time in limbo repeatedly manifests itself in various settings as a reminder of Cobb’s internal struggle:

Cobb:         “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?

Mal:            “Because we’ll be together!

Interestingly enough, the movie – about dreams and memories – opens on a beach and features the deteriorating dreamworld on its shores, giving it not only a sense of time working on physical elements, but spiritual as well (and of course, “Time” is perhaps the most popular track from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack – something that’s also an important element to The Shawshank Redemption.)


When we wound up on the shore of our own subconscious, we lost sight of what was real.  Limbo became her reality.

Going from limbo to permanently erasing one’s memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also uses its settings to represent its main character’s state of mind – often to unique and hilarious effect – in a movie that seems almost the antithesis of Inception: whereas as Christopher Nolan’s film was about a team creating an idea by infiltrating someone’s dreams, Michel Gondry’s take on Charlie Kaufmann’s original screenplay somewhat inverts the notion by having a team specializing in erasing customer’s memories.  Of course things don’t go as planned and Joel Barrish attempts to hold onto at least one good memory of Clementine, the resulting story just as much a labyrinth of plot and character as Nolan’s Inception.


There’s something about trains and beaches as a reoccurring motif in some of these movies. Here, Joel Barish’s voice over marries with the bleak February setting in his desire to connect with someone who’s at a distance. “It’s God damn freezing on this beach. Montauk in February. Brilliant, Joel!” If only he could meet someone new…

Opening with Joel heading to the beach in Montauk on a train after having his memories of Clementine erased, the setting is bleak and cold – kind of reminding one why Valentines Day falls in the middle of the grey beast known as February.  The journey compelled by his subconscious and last words of Clementine, “meet me in Montauk,” as he desperately tries to hold onto his remaining memories of her, Joel admits to being in a funk – but not knowing why.  The rest of the film examines how he and Clementine got to where they are in terms of their life together and apart, the setting becoming increasingly more important as it takes on physical attributes of Joel’s memory much like Cobb’s dream world did for him in Inception.


Even the smaller moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are filled with subtext via the setting.  In one particular scene early on, Clementine goads a wary Joel into having a “honeymoon on ice”.  Joel, trekking like a penguin out onto the ice, laments that he should go back, worried that the ice may break.  Clementine asks, “What if?  Do you really care right now?”  What we don’t realize yet is that Joel’s subconscious is impacting his present: the ice isn’t the only thing he’s worried about breaking and his reaction to the setting with Clementine is a result of having been in a relationship with her previously that left both erasing their memories of one another.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 8.15.20 PM

“It’s not going to crack. Or break, or…it’s so thick.” Relationships often leave one feeling like they’re walking on thin ice…

Though not quite as cerebral in setting as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Her is nevertheless firmly rooted in science fiction and uses its story world to help shape Theodore Twombly’s inner conflict as a writer struggling to move on after a failed marriage.  Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film was also filmed in Shanghai to give it a futuristic, if not altogether alienating feel that helped to establish Theodore’s loneliness.  Whereas a beach in the middle of February with two people at opposite ends of the frame connotes a feeling of disconnect, so too does a man in a stark red coat lost in his melancholy thoughts and flanked by couples.


A city of high-rises and millions of people, yet no one to connect with.

Theodore is another example of a character imprisoned by his past, unable to let go and move on from his failed marriage. The story’s setting, particularly the technology and surroundings, help to convey the feeling of disconnect he has with others.  From playing video games by himself, calling into a char room service, or his work creating emotional cards for others, Theodore lives in a world that strangely seems to mirror our own with society’s increasingly reliance on technology for communication needs – and much to our own detriment.

Granted, the film’s story is not about technology per se, but about relationships and their inherently complex nature.  Theodore, through Samantha, experiences the ups and downs of a real relationship and the vulnerabilities that come with it (vulnerability being one of the key hurdles to Theodore’s inability to connect).  The story’s settings factor throughout his emotional journey: the sun-drenched scenes on the beach where he walks happily amongst the masses with Samantha in his pocket vs. the stark cold, snowy scene in the mountains when everything starts falling apart both serve as a reflection to what Theodore thinks and, perhaps more importantly, feels.  Despite how their relationship turns out, Theodore is able to grow from it and reconcile with his ex-wife and make an important connection by the end of the film.

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By film’s end, Theodore sits on higher ground with a better view of his world after having finally reached a level of awareness that allows him to be vulnerable and connect – or in this case reconnect – with another damaged soul.

Last but not least – and far removed from science fiction overtones – is Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, black comedy Harold and Maude.  The main character, Harold, is a young man obsessed with death who falls for a 79 year old who’s equally obsessed with life.  Both share an odd passion for attending funerals, but for very different perspectives.  Harold’s infatuation with death causes him to enact any number of pseudo-suicides in an effort to obtain an emotional response from his socially affluent yet emotionally unavailable mother.  As we find out later in the film, it was Harold’s supposed death and bearing witness to his mother’s emotional reaction that seemingly gave him any sense of truly being loved, hence is “reenactments” to garner a similar reaction.

The setting for the film explores some of the counter-culture of its time, perhaps being one of the reasons it became the cult classic it is today.  As one might expect from a character obsessed with death, many of the film’s settings involve funerals and cemeteries – not to mention couch trips to the psychiatrist for Harold – all in an effort to help convey his inner sense of malaise.  Harold is, in essence, to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Red as Maude is to that film’s Andy Dufresne, a character imprisoned by his thoughts who’s drawn to another who provides a counterpoint.


Though never explicitly referenced, one quick insert shot of Maude’s arm gives us all the information we need in order to understand her perspective. The tattoo itself provides a rich sense of backstory, of time and place – of setting – without the need to go into further details.

Through Maude, the film’s settings take a different context via her attitude, beliefs and actions – all of which Harold finds himself drawn to.  In one memorable scene rich with symbolism, the two discuss flowers and which kind they each would prefer to be.  The contrasting settings – along with their answers – allow us a peek inside each of the inner workings of their minds:


Just as Harold falls in love with Maude, she informs him of her intention to die – something briefly hinted at early on – leaving him crestfallen in an ending that’s very reminiscent both tonally and structurally to Her: as with Theodore’s learning to be human and vulnerable through Samantha, so to has Harold with Maude.  Both are faced to make a choice to learn from their painful experiences and losses and to move on – and of course both end up physically, and metaphorically “at a higher level” as a result, Harold peering over the cliff to his destroyed “Jaguearse” below on the shore of the ocean – the motif reappearing once again as a symbol for renewal.


The last faux-suicide proves It’s better to be up there playing a banjo than down below, crashing amongst the waves.

In each of these instances, the films’ settings not only give its story a strong sense of time and place, but also a reflection and sense of the character’s inner struggles, too.  Some settings, such as those with Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are part of their story’s conceit as they take place directly in the mind itself.  Others, such as The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude, use various settings in a more subtle ways through symbolism and subtext.

Whatever your setting may be for your own story, looking at it as an extension of your main character’s mind, perspective and inner conflict will enable you to more readily find those opportunities for subtext and symbolism, adding another level of richness to your story and making it a more cohesive work.  As Eudora Welty alluded to in the opening quote, make your settings count!














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Zen and the art of exorcising bad story analysis.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”   – Ernest Hemingway

Scene From 'The Exorcist'

Some writers need this guy on their side.

In a prior article, Cracking A Beautiful Mind’s schizophrenic inciting incident, the distinction between goal and methodology to achieve it was briefly touched upon and how oftentimes one is confused with the other.  Misidentifying the story’s goal – either too broad or too narrow, if not completely – can skewer one’s interpretation of the story as a whole, something that would result in my 10th grade English teacher’s reaction: slamming a book onto the desk to emphasize each word, “No.  NO.  NO!  NOOOO!”  If only the rest of the world had the same English teacher…but I digress.

To borrow an analogy from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – if you want your story to run on all cylinders and perform smoothly, you can’t be a romanticist who’s merely enamored with what’s on the surface and relies on others to perform maintenance when it’s not working properly.  You have to be part classicist and immerse yourself in its underpinnings, its structure and how each piece contributes to the whole – and just like Phaedrus, the narrator in Robert Pirsig’s aforementioned book, you’ll become better adept at diagnosing, and resolving, problems with regards to your own story.  But you’re not going to get there unless, like Phaedrus, you take the time to metaphorically tear the engine apart and rebuild it – or in this case, stories.

A couple of years ago, a discussion with a fellow writer regarding The Exorcist ensued on a popular screenwriting blog.  While we agreed that the main character in the story was Father Karras, the other writer believed the character wasn’t very well executed and that  he was rather inactive towards pursing the story’s goal for most of film.  The goal, as they believed it to be, was to perform an exorcism on Regan.  The problem with this analysis – and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it for this particular story – is that it negates the entire journey for Father Karras’s character which connects his personal problem with the story’s resolution, giving us what William Peter Blatty admitted the story’s “secret message” to be about: faith.


I’m outta here. This girl, she needs an exorcism – not a priest who’s lost faith. Oh wait a minute, I better go back because a priest rediscovering his faith through the existence of evil is what the story is REALLY about.

It’s one thing to look at a film with a posteriori knowledge, knowing what happens and that an exorcism is required as the solution – it is, after all, called “The Exorcist,” even though it does not actually accomplish the goal.   We need to keep in mind the solution is not readily apparent to the characters in the story, otherwise an exorcist would have been called in early on and saved us from the experiencing the journey toward understanding the problem – particularly through the eyes of the main character, a priest, who himself has lost faith and has become reliant and psychology as a means to resolve problems. In simple terms, we cannot merely say the goal is the solution.  The solution is the act that’s taken to accomplish the goal.

In The Exorcist, the goal is not to perform an exorcism because the characters themselves don’t know what’s wrong with Regan.  As the Dramatica Theory of Story notes, much of a story is dedicated to characters dealing with a particular problem’s symptoms before they can ever address the problem itself.  Much like Phaedrus riding a sputtering motorcycle, a certain level of diagnostics is required – sometimes testing hypothesis to assess and try to ascertain what the true problem is.  What are all the things that might cause an engine to sputter?   This is why in the health care profession, doctors are said to be “practicing” medicine, for they don’t know how to treat an ailment until they know what the underlying problem is for sure – and as we all know, problems often share numerous symptoms but require vastly different treatments.

Likewise, we cannot say the story goal is to find out what’s wrong with Regan, for that’s merely half the battle.  The goal therefore needs to be somewhat specific – yet be the basis for the journey and actions taken pursuant to accomplishing it.  The trick is it needs to be such that it encompasses the main character’s flaw/personal problem in a way that ties their journey thematically to the actions required (plot) to satisfy the story goal.  In this case, “saving Regan” requires not an exorcism at all, but a literal leap of faith on Father Karras’s behalf after being possessed himself  (It should be noted that not all stories end successfully.  Those that result in failure often do so with the intent of showing us how/why via a character’s refusal to change or, in rare cases, making the erroneous decision to do so when he was on the right path all along.)


By allowing the story to explore the nature of Regan’s malady, the audience – as well as the main character – are afforded opportunities to see the problem from various perspectives: is it an illness?  Is it psychological?  Is it demonic possession?  All of these are touched upon, forcing Father Karras to confront his own lack of faith after the death of his elderly mother.  The evidence mounts while other explanations are exhausted, leaving Karras with only one choice: to accept it as a demonic possession, which, in turn, as Blatty exclaims in his op-ed, spurs the notion if demons exist, then so too must God. To forgo all these prerequisites would be to strip the story of its meaning – particularly through Father Karras’s struggles – leaving us with a story that sputters along until it stalls on the page with the author (reader or even viewer) kicking dirt, left only to cherish a romanticized view without any inkling how to get it up and running again.

As Pirsig ultimately realizes in his book, both romanticism and classicism are needed – just as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needed both the force and an x-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star.  To become proficient at anything, one must develop their own analytical toolbox – constantly seeking to know details, understand inner workings and master the mechanics – but marrying that knowledge with their creative inspiration and intuition. Sure classicism sounds dull and tedious, much like like motorcycle maintenance itself does, but the notion is applicable to so much more – including writing.  Being a better “story mechanic?”  That was ultimately my English Teacher’s goal for our class despite the methodology (bang bang BANG BANG!) she often applied on our journey to get there.

Posted in Dramatica, Journey, Story Structure, Theme | 5 Comments

The audience’s perspective: North By Northwest and dramatic irony.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE


“It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

-Carl Jung


I don’t think it’s George Kaplan flying that plane.

Much discussion has been given to the function of the main character’s perspective, what the Dramatica theory of story would consider the influence character and the argument made between their clashing perspectives (the two-hander approach or relationship throughline) – but there’s also a fourth realm that looks at a story, what Dramatica considers the Objective or Overall Story throughline, that represents a dispassionate view of a story that sees characters by their archetypal functions (protagonist, antagonist, guardian, etc.)  The theory book itself is available online for free here and is well worth reading, particularly for its examination of the different perspectives and the analogy of story as a battlefield – in which in this particular case, the Objective view is likened to a General on a hill overlooking the battle (story) unfold, seeing various strategies unfold.  This perspective, accompanied with the other three more intimate looks, gives the audience a complete view of the story and, as we’ll examine with Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, allows the audience an opportunity to become all the more engaged through the use of dramatic irony.

A literary device, dramatic irony is where an audience is given a piece of information that at least one of the characters in the story is unaware of, resulting in the audience knowing more than one of the characters and placing them one step ahead “in the story.”  This, in turn, often leads to suspense and ironic humor (often through dialogue), ultimately creating anticipation for the viewer and leaving them wanting to know what happens next.

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

Posted in Dramatic Irony, Dramatica, Hitchcock, Perspective, Story Structure, Techniques and Devices | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Machiavellianism and The Usual Suspects.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  


“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”

-Roger “Verbal” Kint, The Usual Suspects, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie


The gang’s all here.

Much effort has been made to define empathy and how its ability to emotionally connect characters to one another and subsequently drawing an audience deeper into a story – as well as its ability to cause both cognitive dissonance with a main character’s obsessive drive as with Scottie in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the audience’s empathy suddenly shifts to the murderer’s accomplice.  While most of the discussion so far has been focused on the positive attributes as they pertain to story structure based on audience perspective, there are, as we’re about to see, negative attributes that can be just as powerful in telling a compelling story, creating multi-dimensional characters  full of surprises.

Empathy itself is one of the cornerstones of something larger called Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  Not long ago, psychologists began to understand what we know as IQ isn’t necessarily the biggest indicator of success and that there’s a social factor involved – one needs to look no further than perhaps John Nash in A Beautiful Mind for an exemplary motion picture – and that the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior has a large bearing on one’s success as well.

In her recent Psychology Today article, The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, Denise Cummins, Ph.D., notes

The problem is that EQ is “morally neutral”. It can be used to help, protect, and promote oneself and others, or it can be used to promote oneself at the cost of others. In its extreme form, EQ is sheer Machiavellianism–the art of socially manipulating others in order to achieve one’s own selfish ends. When used in this way, other people become social tools to be used to push oneself forward even at considerable expense to them.

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

Posted in Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

How Pixar surprisingly missed the mark with empathy in Toy Story 3.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  


“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison 


It must have taken hours to get the cast all lined up for this photo.

I remember stepping out into the hot desert heat from the Red Rock Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on the afternoon of June 23, 2010 after having watched Toy Story 3 – but it wasn’t necessarily the heat that struck me.  No, it was something else – something about the movie that left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite put my  finger on.  While I enjoyed it, as many others in attendance did, I couldn’t help but feel something was, well…off.  Upon watching it a second time, I had a better understanding why I felt the way I did and putting it into context – a huge summer family film – left me scratching my head as to what the folks at Pixar were actually thinking with some of their story choices.

My concern stemmed from the film’s misuse of empathy, choosing to take a tone centered on vengeance or “comeuppance” that is perhaps a reflection of our society in general – but hardly the qualities and attributes one might expect from a spectacle like the Toy Story Trilogy that is catered toward children more so than adults.  As discussed in the previous article, that a film such as The Woodsman was able to take an unsympathetic character in Walter – a recently released child molester who’s just served twelve years in prison – and allow for him a measure of forgiveness and redemption begs the question: why couldn’t Pixar do the same for a strawberry-scented teddy bear?

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE

Posted in Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure, Theme | 7 Comments

Scene analysis: The Woodsman – empathy done right.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE.  


“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

 –Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


The past is never farther than the bounce of a red, rubber ball for Walter in The Woodsman.

The Woodsman is not an easy movie to watch.  Its main character, Walter, played by Kevin Bacon, tries to adjust and assimilate back into society after twelve years in prison.  That Walter has a dark secret – he’s a child molester – along with urges he continually fights to control, make him a rather unsympathetic character as his inner turmoil often results in a curt and abrasive outward persona towards others.  Yet, in the midst of all we can’t help but let the film’s dramatic question, will Walter succumb to his desires once again, draw us in despite a host of his undesirable traits causing a level of discomfort with the viewer.

In a previous article, Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience,  I noted some of the ways in which to build empathy for a character that may otherwise seem unrelatable – some of which are present in The Woodsman in an effort to understand what Walter is up against in his quest for redemption:

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

Posted in Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure | 6 Comments

Show, don’t tell and its relationship to empathy in screenwriting.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE


“MYTH: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is literal-Don’t tell me John is sad, show him crying.”

REALITY: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is figurative-Don’t tell me John is sad, show me why he’s sad.”

 -Lisa Cron, Wired For Story.

batman the joker batman the dark knight 1680x945 wallpaper_www.wallpaperno.com_66

Robbing a bank is so easy, even a joker can do it. But screenwriting? That’s no joke.

One of the most difficult things for writers to do is write lean, narrative descriptions that are succinct in conveying their intended meaning to an audience.  We hear the words “trust your readers” without really putting what it means into context, passages often becoming overwritten, vague, non-specific and meaningless as a result.  Much of this comes from an inability to convey specific visual cues to the reader, making them more of a passive observer to a story rather than an active participant to it – but some issues can also be attributed to the overlooked facet of set up and pay off (the cause and effect relationship) of “Show, don’t tell.”  Understanding the virtues of both is necessary if one wants an audience to truly engage with their writing.

In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron makes the distinction between the literal and the figurative and how all too often writers choose to do what they believe is correct in showing an emotion as it pertains to the scene.  However, what they fail to do is recognize in the realm of storytelling, everything is about set ups (cause) and pay offs (effect), including emotions.  Showing someone crying over the death of another isn’t enough; we must have an understanding of what the deceased meant to the other in order for us to feel and derive meaning ourselves while watching the scene.   In other words, it’s the set up that provides context for the pay off – and you know the movies that don’t do this effectively because your friend sitting in the next seat will nudge and ask you, “Why’d he do that?

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

Posted in Empathy, Story Structure | 3 Comments

Demystifying the “two-hander” approach: why it’s important to know in writing your story.

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”                                                                                                                          -David McCullough

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As we’ll find out later, two hands are better than one.

In a recent Scripnotes podcast, Making Things Better By Making Things WorseJohn August and Craig Mazin voiced disdain for textbook theories, and much of it rightly so, while discussing the vague topic of a “two-hander” that ultimately seemed no better or worse than those patterns concepts found in the same books they criticize.  As John describes: 

“A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story. So, romantic comedies are generally two-handers, but really it applies to a lot of other kinds of movies, too. Lethal Weapon is a two-hander. The Sixth Sense is a two-hander. Identity Thief is a two-hander…generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals.”

The concept, as John states here, seems easy to grasp – but on closer scrutiny,  his explanation seemed to muddy some waters.  First, there appear to be a number of qualifiers and exceptions in his statement that results in a lack of clarity leaving us with two truths: it’s not bound by genre and it involves two important characters.


Do you see a two-hander here? They both seem to want the same thing…

Secondly, could this be an illustration of the pot calling the kettle black?  Both John and Craig have a history of criticizing text-book how-to’s, gurus and story analysts alike for seeing patterns and selling formulas, something Craig himself stated further into the article:

“Things that happened, the whats and the whens are connected to the why, I think. Everything is a choice. Yes, you can certainly see the patterns. Pulling patterns out of movies and saying, ‘Well, it does seem like typically the hero experiences a low point at the end of whatever we think of as Act 2.’ Absolutely. Well noticed.

Here’s another observation: it does certainly appear that as we progress into the summer months that the day grows younger. Neither of those statements, the first statement about screenplays won’t help you write a screenplay. The second statement about the lengthening of days will not help you create a universe.”

The problem here – and plenty of irony to be found, too – is there’s typically more clarity from those often criticized.  Granted, there are a number of merits in John and Craig’s argument if not wholehearted agreements with their overall sentiment – it’s just John readily admits later that Craig’s “really been a huge disservice to screenwriters everywhere…because this is a thing that should be straightforward and you made it completely un-straightforward.”  Perhaps a contributing factor to the problem is that perhaps too much time was devoted to form – the “what” it is – rather than the function – the “why” it is.  We’re told (sort of) what a two-hander is, but never really in a way that we understand its function or purpose in a story.


Whatever could the importance of a “two-hander” be here? John and Craig kind of left us hanging…no pun intended.

So why do some stories have this “two-hander” approach and others don’t?  What is its function in a story?  Why do some genres have them versus others?  Does this mean there’s two main characters?  Why do they sometimes have the same goal and other times they have separate goals?  Where do we find some clarity in all of this?

Simply put, “two-hander” is about perspective.  If we take a step back and look at the big picture using The Shawshank Redemption as an example, we see two characters, Andy & Red, whose rolls are often confused.  Taking a previous article discussing this into consideration, we note the story’s theme as an outcome from the climax (hope is a good thing) and the choice the main character has to make: get busy living, or get busy dying.  That choice is the culmination of two perspectives, Andy’s vs. Red’s, as dramatized throughout the story.


Friends don’t necessarily think alike: Red and Andy have very different views on how to go about solving their problems, adding a whole other level of conflict to the story than that explored through just the typical antagonist vs. protagonist angle.

In this sense, the story’s theme – what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) – is explored by means of an argument.  In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument.   Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change.   Whichever the case may be, the outcome is what the author wishes the audience to walk away in terms of their feeling about the main character and story itself.  This is why it’s important to have something to say, to have your stories “be about something,” because theme, context, subtext, plot, conflict, everything factors into it (which Craig alluded to when saying “the plot is the character, is the theme, is the dialogue, is the narrative, is the choices.”)

In addition, as John states, the characters can often want the same thing, but conflict – and a differently level of conflict than that found between protagonist vs. antagonist – can arise simply between their perspectives of how to go about achieving the shared goal.  This, in turn, makes a story richer, deeper and more complex because often times it’s where the heart and soul (read: emotions) truly reside.

In The Shawshank Redemption, the plot, the setting, the dialogue, almost everything tips toward Red so that we feel and acknowledge his perspective as the main character – and that’s why the ending works as well as it does.  We’re also privy to Andy’s perspective: from suds on the roof to the opera playing over the prison’s loudspeakers, we have those moments of light shining amongst the darkness – but it’s not overwhelmingly so, otherwise the ending wouldn’t have worked.  There had to be a sense of doubt which is why we’re placed squarely in Red’s shoes, his voiceover after being released from prison showing him at his lowest point (likewise, we read into Andy’s emotions, mostly through Red, with regards to his “shitty pipe-dreams,” leading us to believe he’s on the verge of suicide.)

In The Sixth Sense, the “two-hander” is between Malcolm and Cole.  Malcolm, as the main character, is trying to resolve the story’s central problem of “what’s wrong with Cole.”  His perspective, however, is based on his background which dictates there must be some kind of psychological explanation.  Cole, however, has a completely different perspective: he’s haunted and sees dead people.

These two perspectives clash and form the basis of Malcolm and Cole’s relationship, a dramatic tug-of-war if you will, where at some point, one eventually finds truth in the other’s point of view.  In this particular case, Malcolm has a perception problem – but it’s only through his interactions – his relationship – with Cole that he’s able to finally see the truth for what it really is: he’s a ghost himself.


That awkward moment when it all makes SENSE and you realize the kid has been talking about YOU the entire movie.

In Braveheart, the relationship between William Wallace and Robert the Bruce is central to the outcome: both want the same thing, but go about their attempts to achieve it differently.  Wallace has the tangibles that Robert the Bruce needs – the courage and conviction to actually lead – yet their relationship struggles to find a foothold amongst the incessant back and forth pulling of the nobles’ ideology which leads to disunity and betrayal.   But it’s ultimately Wallace’s conviction – thematically symbolized by his wedding cloth, the wedding itself a symbol of unity – that influences Robert the Bruce, who, upon Wallace’s death, finds the courage to unite and lead Scotland to her freedom on the battlefield.


“You have bled with Wallace, now bleed with me.” Wallace’s influence is felt on Robert the Bruce who becomes the leader Scotland needed to win her freedom.

In Star Wars, Luke is a main character with a lot of raw skills and a chip on his shoulder to boot, constantly testing his abilities against others in an effort to prove himself.  As we learn through Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is reckless and has too much of his father in him, but in Star Wars, that’ tempered by Obi-Wan’s perspective as he mentors Skywalker in the ways of the force.  It’s Ben’s influence, even after physical death, that prompts Luke to stop testing his abilities.



The result is a choice – a leap of faith – as Luke turns off his equipment and blows up the Death Star, resolving his personal flaw and solving the central plot’s problem in a scene where all the story’s throughlines comes together at once.

It’s these distinctive perspectives, or what Dramatica calls throughlines, which help writers to explore the nature of the argument their making.  Three of the four throughlines have been discussed and exemplified, each offering a different perspective available to the human experience:

Main Character throughline – the “I” perspective, as seen from inside the main character representing the audience’s position to the story.

Influence Character throughline – the “You” or alternate perspective which essentially provides the second element of a “two-hander.”

Relationship Throughline – the “We” perspective, wherein the main character and the influence character hash out the passionate argument of the story, one ultimately adopting the other’s perspective.  It’s those moments when Red and Andy clash over music being something that can’t be taken from you.  Hope being a dangerous thing.  Refurbishing an old boat being nothing more than a “shitty pipe-dream.”  It’s Cole asking Malcolm “How can you help me if you don’t believe me?”  It’s William Wallace’s impassioned speech telling Robert the Bruce if he would only lead, he too would follow.

It should be noted, not all main characters change – William Wallace being a good example.  Rather, he holds firm to his convictions and influences others around him to change (meaning the influence character can either the one who changes, or changes the main character as a result.)


But what about us? What are we all doing here?

The last throughline is that of the Overall Story which is essentially the plot as it pertains to the story goal.  It’s “what are we all doing here?” – in Star Wars, it’s a battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  In The Shawshank Redemption, everyone’s dealing with an innocent man in prison.  In The Sixth Sense, everyone’s affected in some way or another by Cole’s problem – therefore playing a role in the story.  In Braveheart, everyone’s involved – on one side or the other – in the battle for Scotland’s freedom.

Craig’s words of wisdom later in the podcast ring true which makes this particular episode all the more ironic because screenwriting doesn’t have to be messy.

“Nothing that is worth anything can be achieved through simple steps. It is the children in us that are looking for parents to give us instructions to follow. And we are all children looking for parents everywhere. In the end, however, in order to achieve anything of value you have to be your own parent and you have to be a grown up and you have to confront the messiness of it.”

Dramatica itself provides a context in which everything has its place, an explanation, and a definition without resorting to a lot of mysticism and generalizations or  a “paint by numbers” approach.


You’ll note the lack of “happy little asteroids” here, but we can neither confirm nor deny those brushes are made from the finest of Wookie hair.

At the same time, it’s hard.  There’s no “simple steps” to follow and it has a steep learning curve – but with practice comes understanding and with understanding knowledge.  Putting that knowledge into writing begets wisdom until one day, everything clicks and YOU see story from a whole new perspective.

Perhaps more importantly, you finally see story with much more clarity than you ever have before and as already noted – to write well is to think clearly.




Author’s note:

This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch; rather it’s to let people know there are free resources available that are well-worth exploring.  As someone who’s read more than his fair share of books on screenwriting, hired numerous consultants, paid thousands (and THOUSANDS) of dollars over the years in coverage/notes, I know first hand where John and Craig are coming from with their sentiments – and rightly so – but everything one can learn from a book can’t, and shouldn’t be, so readily dismissed and I know this as well from first hand experience.  

When I first came upon Dramatica twelve years ago, I downloaded a trial version and quickly figured – even with a degree in Psychology – this is over my head and too much to learn.  But five years ago, in my quest for knowledge having gone through just about everything else from Lew Hunter to Syd Field to Robert McKee’s Story to John Truby to The Hero’s Journey and so on and so forth, I found myself coming back to Dramatica – my only regret was having dismissed it as quickly as I did.  Granted, I honestly believe there are stages of learning and perhaps I just wasn’t ready for it my first go-round at the time – and truth be told, the more I learned about other people’s perspectives on story, the better prepared I became for Dramatica…and I STILL don’t consider myself an expert (though the first draft of the first script I wrote using it received some pretty high praise and some fans in the process – a testament to my belief first drafts don’t have to be crap despite what many people parrot.  Plan your work and work your plan.)  

If you’re interested in learning more about the theory, you can visit the Dramatica website where there are any number of free resources, analysis, links to user communities, writer groups, etc.  Or you may find any number of articles at Jim Hull’s excellent Narrative First blog helpful as they go into much more detail on all the various facets of Dramatica’s story theory.  Understanding just a few of the key concepts may be enough to shift your own perspective.  

Be forewarned: it’s difficult.  It requires hard work, dedication, practice and application.  And perhaps that’s the point Craig misses on the formula approach: sure people want an easy solution, a formula, a step approach – but you still have to be willing to do the heavy lifting.  After all, nobody ever lost weight by simply reading a how-to book.  









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Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE.


“COGNITIVE SECRET: Emotion determines the meaning of everything— if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

STORY SECRET: All story is emotion based— if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.”

–Cron, Lisa (2012-07-10). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Kindle Locations 36-37). Ten Speed Press. Kindle Edition.


Getting a read on Judy Barton (Kim Novak), cloaked by “supernatural” green light in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. After being solicited for a date by Scottie who notes she reminds him of someone (dead), Judy replies “Why, because I remind you of her? That’s not very complimentary. And nothing else?”

In the last article, I briefly mentioned the concept of mirroring which has been a hot topic in neuroscience for the last two decades.  The much debated notion is neurons fire both when an animal acts and when another observes the same action performed, providing the neural basis of the capacity for emotions such as empathy.  Empathy, in turn, is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being.

Empathy, however, is not sympathy.  If you’re not sure of the difference, please take a moment to watch this wonderfully articulated short video taken from research professor Dr. Brené Brown:


Sympathy, simply put, is indicative of the old saying “I feel for you, but I can’t quite reach you.”  It disconnects whereas empathy draws us in and makes us feel what characters are feeling.  Knowing how to utilize empathy effectively, as we will see later on, can distance us from the a character and actually draw us closer and align our emotions to an accomplice to murder instead.

Before delving further into empathy itself, it’s important to note that there are seven universal basic emotions:

We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

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Tunneling to the heart of The Shawshank Redemption: a look inside theme and perspective and how they combine, continuing to give audiences hope twenty-years after the film’s release.


You can find this article in its entirety HERE


“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

                           -Viktor E. Frankl


Who amongst us hasn’t felt imprisoned by life’s events at one time or another, leaving us with the bitter taste of hopelessness?  No matter what we do, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness consumes us, affecting our beliefs which, in turn, manifest themselves into our attitudes and ultimately our behaviors.

Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl survived the horrors and atrocities as a prisoner in the Holocaust by finding meaning in all forms of existence, including suffering.  In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, he describes the effects of lost faith:

“The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”     p. 47

Those such as Frankl who choose to find meaning in their daily existence realized “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a sentiment that rings true in The Shawshank Redemption, where an innocent man’s imprisonment and subsequent resiliency to lose all hope influences a fellow inmate to forgo his years of cynicism and embrace a very similar notion to Dr. Frankl’s:

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”


We’ve found a new home!  You can read the rest of this article as well as others HERE.  

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